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US Senators Spend Independence Day with Troops in Afghanistan

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, promotes Army Maj. Samuel Fuller, right, to lieutenant colonel at a ceremony in Kabul to mark Independence Day on July 4, 2017. (Stars and Stripes/Phillip Walter Wellman)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, promotes Army Maj. Samuel Fuller, right, to lieutenant colonel at a ceremony in Kabul to mark Independence Day on July 4, 2017. (Stars and Stripes/Phillip Walter Wellman)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A group of U.S. senators celebrated Independence Day on Tuesday in Afghanistan, where they met with American service members and said major changes were needed to win the war.

"We cannot think of a better way to celebrate our nation's independence than to be here with so many of our fellow citizens who are sacrificing every day to keep us safe and to give the people of Afghanistan a chance to secure their own independence," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters at NATO's Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul.

McCain presided over the promotion of three service members during an outdoor ceremony Tuesday, and four other service members were awarded medals for their achievements.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., accompanied McCain.

"It means a lot to us," Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Gail Stockman, who earned an achievement medal, said of the senators' visit.

A wife and mother of two, Stockman said the importance of the mission made it easier to be away from her family on the holiday.

"I would like to believe that we are making a difference here and that we can one day stabilize this place so that [Afghans] can enjoy the comfort that we do in the United States," she said.

Newly promoted Marine Corps Lt. Col. Natalie M. Trogus, also a wife and a mother of three, said while she would have enjoyed seeing her family and fireworks on Independence Day, the senators' support and the camaraderie among troops helped ease feelings of homesickness.

"It's still great to be with my fellow brothers and sisters here serving the government of Afghanistan and working alongside our Afghan brothers and sisters," she said.

Service members from all branches of the military as well as American civilians and troops from other coalition countries attended the ceremony and had an opportunity to meet the senators. A barbecue was held shortly afterward.

Stephenie Jonas-Sullivan, a U.S. citizen who advises the Afghan Interior Ministry on gender issues, said she enjoyed spending the Fourth of July in Kabul.

"It's actually quite gratifying to be in Afghanistan and to be a free American and model the behavior that we hope to see here in colleagues, counterparts, men and women," said Jonas-Sullivan, who was wearing a dress that looked like an American flag. "I love being in a capacity where I can help the plight of women here."

The senators -- who met Afghan leaders earlier in the day -- commended the work of American troops and civilians in Afghanistan, but said Washington must make changes to turn the current "stalemate" into a victory.

"None of us would say that we're on a course for success here in Afghanistan," McCain said. "That needs to change quickly."

The security situation in Afghanistan has steadily deteriorated since NATO ended combat operations in 2014. The Taliban now control more territory than at any other time since 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion ousted the group from power.

The senators' visit comes as the Trump administration is expected to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan, which is expected to include the deployment of up to 5,000 more U.S. troops, adding to the roughly 8,400 who are currently in the country mostly in training and advising roles.

Graham said he hopes the new strategy will allow American air power to be used against the Taliban more often and that any military surge will be accompanied by a "diplomatic surge."

"We are woefully understaffed in the State Department side," Graham said, "which is just as important as surge in military assets." The Trump administration has not yet appointed an ambassador to Afghanistan.

Graham said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's "lack of focus" on Afghanistan is "very unnerving," adding that the senators will press Tillerson to visit Afghanistan to assess the situation himself.

McCain presided over the promotion of three U.S. service members during an Independence Day ceremony at NATO's Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul on Tuesday. Four other service members were awarded medals for their achievements.

Promotions

Army Lt. Col. Samuel Fuller, promoted from major

Marine Lt. Col. Natalie M. Trogus, promoted from major

Air Force Master Sgt. Brenton Almeida, promoted from technical sergeant

Achievement medals

Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Gail Stockman

Air Force Staff Sgt. Joel Adamson

Army Capt. Benjamin Murray

Army Maj. Jacqueline Newell

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